Goon Dock Running

“It’s ok. Goonies make mistakes. Just don’t make anymore.”

You’re going to screw up during a run. At some point, you’re going to make a mistake and need to recalibrate, adjust, or bring yourself back from the brink of disaster. It’s ok.

Plans are amazing and I make quite a few of them – from how I’ll clean my house on a day off to how I’ll handle my gel intake during a long run, I’ve got a plan for that. But in nearly every scenario the plan will inevitably break down and need adjusting. It’s not so difficult when my dogs come charging in covered in mud and make me refocus from laundry to mopping the floors. It is difficult when I’m twenty miles deep and realize I’m dehydrated and the cramps are setting in as my body begins to revolt.

Mistakes happen. What do you do next?

First, take a moment to be frustrated with yourself. Emotions aren’t the enemy. It’s how you handle them and how much control you give them that can be the problem. Kick a pine cone, shout ‘fuck you’ at a squirrel nearby, or hurl that pine cone you just kicked at said squirrel because it probably deserves it anyway (squirrels are evil and I stand by this statement).

Now that the frustration has passed, plan you’re way out of the hole. If it is dehydration, go easy. Don’t down a bunch of water at once and think that it will magically correct the deficit. Sip on your water continuously while taking a couple of gels over the next hour. Slow down your pace to avoid overexertion that would make your body pump out more sweat and keep you from regaining balance. And if you happen upon an aid station during this time, take a load off and chat for a while to let your body do what it does best in the background without you getting in the way.

Mistakes will change the course of your plan and will almost inevitably affect the outcome you had been anticipating. But adaptation is necessary. Carrying on through mistakes is how we learn.

And know it’s ok to screw up, because why the hell shouldn’t it be.

I’m betting money you’re not a professional runner because the vast majority of us aren’t. You do not get paid to be in perfect shape or to spend hours grueling over your training plan to try to find the weak spots.

Goonies make mistakes. And if trail runners aren’t grown-up Goonies chasing down One-Eyed Willie’s treasure, then I don’t know what the hell we are. However you choose to describe running – sport, activity, mud stomping fun – we are still adults playing in the woods while the rest of the world stares at us like we’re the weird kids your parents made you play with (hands up if you’re that kid… Our parent’s made Rory play with me).

Whatever happens, whatever tries to drag you down and destroy your plans, you can make it through. Because Goonies might make mistakes, but Goonies never say die!

Bull Durham Syndrome

Crash Davis – the iconic fictional character from Bull Durham has an unintended place amongst my thoughts right now. A tremendous baseball player, he racked up accolades in the minor leagues, but never got a full chance to take the next step. Just a few glorious days of his career were spent in the majors before being sent back down to play out his days unnoticed.

What in the hell does that have to do with anything? – You ask.

I was intending this slot to be an exhausted, but elated race review of The Rock. Several months in the making, this race was a journey into unfamiliar territory for Rory and me as we began our next stage of plans for Vagabond Endurance. Life and nature are unconcerned with personal desires, though.

Sometimes You Win:

Rory and I had no idea what to expect when we announced our first race back in the winter of 2019. We both ran races but we had never directed one. Unwilling to take it lightly, we poured our hearts into the endeavor and tried to make the best of it. We got to meet many of the runners we’ve seen at our start lines at Charlotte run clubs that welcomed us in with open arms, letting us nervously ramble on about the Cane Creek Half and 4 Miler.

And not only did y’all welcome us to speak, but you even listened, signed up, and cheered us on. We don’t know what we did to deserve that type of reception. All we can say is that we don’t take it for granted and remind ourselves of the open arms we were fortunate enough to receive from the moment we started this.

For us, it was like we finally got scouted and signed; like someone gave us the chance to shine to see if we could make it in the majors. Hosting the race and seeing all of the runners cross the finish line smiling was a joy that Rory and I didn’t know we could feel from our work. From the moment we cheered on the first finisher to when we packed up the last of our gear to head out, we were happy. We felt successful.

Sometimes You Lose:

The pandemic is just a dreadful experience, and this is coming from someone who can be considered rather fortunate throughout the entirety of its grip. We’ve come close to losing both our businesses at varying times. To be blatantly honest, a month after the Cane Creek Half and 4 Miler in March we were fighting to get on unemployment until we were called back by the properties we paint at to continue operations of our other company.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy. Some of you reading this went through the same thing, if not worse. This is just the random kick in the groin that life can deliver after experiencing an unexpected high.

We honestly thought our chance to build Vagabond Endurance was over. It took months to get a park to agree to give us a permit, and every conversation felt like they were on the tipping point of just saying no, and telling us it wasn’t going to happen.

Sometimes It Rains:

Giving up and calling it quits would’ve been easy, and even understandable. But we kept getting support. We kept hearing from runners who thought our weird brand of inane humor and style made them smile. So, we kept trying.

Eventually, we snagged a race at Crowders Mountain and even got to hold a 3rd with Killer Creek, two races that managed to bring more new friends into our circle. Sometimes it rains good fortune when you don’t expect it.

The Rock would’ve been our 4th in-person race; our first step toward our larger goal of taking people on adventures around our state and beyond. Vagabond Endurance is meant to be our way of sharing in runner’s desires to see new places, experience new trails, and build a family on the road that supports them through it all.

We spent hours working on this course, trying to find the right path to take you on to not just give you an enjoyable run, but to give you an experience on the trails that would build a craving within you to come back to Hanging Rock.

This race will still happen, but not this weekend.

Instead of getting that next chance at the majors to shine, the weather called and sent us back down. So here we sit, waiting in the winds, looking forward to our next chance. We’ll continue putting in the hours at night and on the weekends to find new paths to take you on a journey. And we’ll continue to cherish every ounce of support and kindness you send our way.

Without it, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to break out and go on this journey. With it, we feel like major leaguers in the making, just waiting to be called up.

Why Vagabond?

There’s a stark difference between our lives and those who make a solitary campsite or the back of a van their home. We are stationary many days, walled into the city we live in, taking care of the families and lives we’ve built for ourselves. Quite often, we have to plan our disappearing acts into the world around us, sacrificing the days of picking up a drop bag and going at a moment’s whim. So, with these limitations, why choose the name ‘Vagabond’?

Throughout our lives, my brother and I have chosen to take multiple paths. There was no set course we followed, and a long list of failures and accomplishments that shaped our mental states. As we developed a passion for something, we pursued it. If we saw the end had come, we began to say our goodbyes. In this respect, we received many an awkward glance or condescending comment from people who readily chose to follow an unwavering and narrow path, whether it made them happy or not.

For this reason, we consider ourselves to be vagabonds. Although we may not hit the road to a new town, or adventure as often as some, we are readily available to the changing nature of life and the shifts and stumbles that come along with it. Being tied down to one specific goal, one attainable achievement, does not inspire a passion to keep us moving in our lives. We want to wander. We want to try new things, meet new people, and see new landscapes.

We are not the vagrants of old, meandering from town to town, passing through others’ lives. But, for us, that’s ok. The world changes around us at a steady pace, and often, so do the meanings of words. If I were to express how I felt when I call myself a vagabond it would be as follows:

  • To be ready and willing to experience emotions as they come and go freely. To let loose my grip on things that cannot be permanent, and to embrace what is within my reach while I can. And, to experience as much of nature, love, and people as life allows wherever I may find myself.

Our definition is far from perfect, and so are we. But we’ll keep wandering, in our lives, on the road, and with our races for as long as our legs and minds will take us.

This is why you’ll find many of our races won’t repeat. If you see it, and it perks your interest, this may be your one chance to run that race. We want to be free to be inspired by new ideas, new trails, and new experiences. Locking our schedules down to specific events to be repeated year in and year out locks us, and you, into the same routine. We’ll stay tethered for now to Cane Creek, a park that we found a calling in to chase to its fruition.

It might seem odd given that many races are created in hopes to become permanent fixtures, but we’re odd people. And from the group of runners we’ve met at our races so far, y’all are pretty odd too. We love you for that.

We may never fit the romanticized imagery of the vagabond, but our hearts match the desire, and our eyes will keep the horizon in sight to make sure we take the next step toward it when we can.

Cheers to those that find stillness in a restless heart.   

What’s Your Pace?

The field was small, but the vibes were great. I was lined up for my first 50 miler and my nerves were wreaking havoc on my emotions as the cool air of the morning sent chills throughout my body. I had planned, as always – start slow, keep it steady, and just be happy. But, I didn’t. I started hot and fast.

There was no immediate punishment for this careless decision and I was quickly letting thoughts of glory bicker over which podium spot I would take. Obviously not first (too humble for such an honor), but who’s to say I’d have to settle for third instead of reaching for second… I can be quite the overachiever in my daydreams.

The first two hours had passed successfully. I was running two minutes under my goal pace and even got a ‘Nice job!’ from the RD at an aid station for coming in at #11 close enough to see a top 10 pack of runners headed out. This was going to be my moment to shine. I took a quick swig of water and grabbed a handful of something I wasn’t paying enough attention to know what it was but still ate, and took off down the trail after the pack.

This was what I dreamed about during training. This was also the moment anyone objectively assessing the scenario would be able to say, “Oh yeah, you’re about to be fucked.” But damn how they would’ve been wrong. I kicked it into high gear, asserted my dominance on the trails, and wound my way through runners until I could see the podium squad off in the distance. I spent much of the late teens and twenties on my own, contemplating the accolades that would adorn my humble abode after pushing through such agony to attain this accomplishment – my wife would cook me the finest of meals, my family would shower me with praise, and the world would know that there is a new up and comer (I’m almost 40) to the trail running world.

With such grandiose visions rattling through my brain, I knew it was now or never. I began to push myself even harder, fighting through abdominal pain and cramps to make my way to within a breath’s distance of third place. Letting our feet sync, pounding into the dirt with the same rhythm, I waited for the pristine moment to pass. It came to fruition in a sharp turn, followed by an uphill climb hidden by a dense thicket of pine trees that nature, and the trail designers, had laid out beautifully. His feet stuttered on the turn, losing a step, and losing his rhythm while I charged past, never looking back…. Yeah, this is all bullshit.

Remember that aid station bit about how the RD told me ‘Nice job!’. I started bombing a few miles after that. I had completely screwed my hydration plan, did not pay near enough attention to what I would need to eat to sustain such an effort (an effort I hadn’t even trained for) and wound up rolling my ankle so bad at mile 31 because of the cramps I didn’t address. As my gait changed I couldn’t run properly and found my way slowly crashing into my first DNF.

One of the loveliest things about trail running is the trails. One of the most unforgiving, uncaring, unapologetic things about trail running is the trails. They do not care about your emotions, your plans, or your effort. If you do not put in the work needed to calm your thoughts and desires, the trails will humble you at no extra charge.

If you’ve been properly training, you will run multiple long-distance efforts at a moderate training pace before your ultra. But come race day, that moderate pace for the entire run can be stunted into a blow-out effort within the first half if you aren’t honest with yourself about where you can comfortably run and be happy and safe. For most of us, it’s a minute or two added on to our training pace, not subtracted from. Do some runners go out hot and find a way to finish at the podium? Yes. Do the vast majority of runners who go out hot wind up in the same predicament as I did? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Your pace for an ultra is not your PR for a half or even a 25k. If you aren’t a nose down, precision training semi-pro to pro, then let yourself off the hook. There is an overabundance of DNF’s, injuries, and finish line fatigue that can be directly correlated to runners overreaching their pace, and I am an unfortunate ambassador to that statement. It has taken me the last few years of honestly questioning my goals, honestly asking myself what I intend to achieve, and honestly reminding myself that I am not an athlete.

I’m a trail runner.

I don’t need to fight for a podium spot because I don’t train for a podium spot. I don’t need to harangue myself if my pace is a mid-13 or 14 when an 11 isn’t so unreasonable from there.

When reason comes along to shine a light on the situation, I can see I am pushing myself to accomplish something only worth it if I enjoy it. Why? Because that’s all I want from trail running. I want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy the other people who enjoy it, and I don’t want to struggle through training sessions to take mere seconds off of my finish time. If you do, awesome. Kill it, crush it, and dig in and grind your heart out. But if you’re like me, give yourself a break. Finish wherever you finish and be all the happier for the memories and smiles.

I’ve most likely run my PR for a 50k and 50 Miler, and that’s fine. I’ll take a finish line walking in and smiling over pushing myself to the breaking point these days. Besides, you get to eat a lot more aid station food, and talk to some pretty cool people when you’re not in a rush to get anywhere but to that next step in front of you. 

Of Trolls and Men

Standing off the shores in the cold arctic waters of Iceland are the stone remnants of two trolls, locked forever in basalt.

Some centuries ago, amongst the faint glow of starlight, these two trolls spotted a ship sailing off the coast of the black sand beach, Reynisfjara. Standing upon the smooth stones left from the chaos of temperamental lava flow losing its war against the frigid waters, the trolls eyed the vast sails of an old fisherman’s trawler bulging from the rush of the wind.  

It rolled up and down along the waves, passing the trolls resting outside their home at Reynisfjall as they skimmed volcanic stones across the tidal waters to pass the time. Trolls, you may not know, were exceptional at seeing through the dark of night, far better than any person could imagine. And as the waves continued to carry the trawler, the trolls could see, even from a distance, that the ship sat low in the water, its belly filled with a most prosperous catch.

Hungry from their slumber and irritated by the fortunes of others, the trolls hatched a plan to wade into the waters with the dark of night as their cover. The two would use their fearsome might to drag the ship across the open water, men and fish alike, for a feast like no other they had shared. It had been a hard winter. They were hungry and no man or amphibian should be spared from their attempt to satiate their desires.

Eyeing the stars, the trolls could see the constellations moving faster than they would care to acknowledge, the dim light of darkness in which deeds such as this belong was dwindling, and the sun would be breaking over the horizon in too soon a time. Trolls, if you are unaware, cannot abide the light of day and are cast forever in stone should they make the mistake of letting the sun find a home on their skin.

Now, as it was, after little debate, the two trolls declared the reward to be far greater than the threat and cast aside their worries as they waded into the turbulent waters off the shores of Reynisfjara. The two had waded many a time into the sea before, eyeing whales and seals alike, finding success at catching each. But this night, the water was agonizingly turbulent; the waves rolled in hard under their feet, eroding the ground beneath them as they sunk and slid their way into the water. They shared a glance of frustration, but neither spoke of the dangers this could cause. The men of the ship would not go lightly, and if the sea worked against them as well, it would take twice as long as they had anticipated to drag it back to shore.

Wading deeper into the water, the trolls pushed forward, undeterred and unwilling to acknowledge the risk as their troubles mounted. The seas became more restless as a black sheet was laid across the skies, and a torrent of rain began to fall upon them. Sparks of light lit the waves around the ship as the concussive force of mother nature erupted around them, the lightning offering a horrific glance into power even greater than theirs. But still, the trolls carried on until they were neck-deep, and staring longingly at the ship as it bobbed up and down over the waves, heading right toward them.

They took their place to each side and readied themselves to leap up and grab hold of the deck. Their arms held the strength of mountains and could lay waste to a horde of men without so much as making a full effort. Waiting for the ship to crest a wave, the trolls lurched out of the water, snagging it, one at each end, taking the crew by surprise as they had been focused on making their way through the storm.

A cry rang out amongst the sailors as the trolls roared their approval of the fear that gripped the men before them. Fighting against the seas and the persistence of life, the trolls turned the ship toward the shore, heading home to enjoy their feast. They laughed and spoke in their tongue of old, a language unknown to mankind, watching the crew fling themselves into the seas, more willing to take their chances with drowning rather than face the boiling pot of the trolls. It bothered the trolls little, as the sea would often wash to shore the life it refused to take the burden of.

Their laughter and mockery kept their minds occupied as the trolls waded against the raging water, forcing the ship against its rudder and command of the captain who begged for mercy. It was in this merriment that the pair had failed to realize the passing of time and the parting of the clouds. The constellations they depended upon to guide their nightly rituals had faded into the purple hues of an early morning revival of life while the sun broke slowly over the horizon. A mere 100 yards away from the shore, the trolls roared in anguish at their folly. Their howls lasted until the air had left their lungs for eternity. The trolls spoke no more, fighting against the pull of eternity.  

Their feet refused to obey their commands as they began to sink deeper into the sand, frozen in place. They cast their eyes upon each other, then their home once more, for the last time. They were so close, but they would never make it. Never. As the sunlight washed over them, they felt a moment of pure bliss. It lasted but a few seconds, the kiss of an angel turning into the grip of a demon. Their bodies gave way to the curse that beset their kind, and their bodies became stone. Standing tall, and facing their homes, the trolls were now monuments, forever at sea, never to return home.

The ship broke apart between the two trolls as the waves cast it back and forth against the stone monuments. The sailors left aboard flung themselves into the frigid arctic waters intent on surviving their fate.

Those who swam faster than the cold could freeze their limbs survived to tell of their tragedy at sea by the hands of the greedy trolls. In time, they would even begin taking weary travelers from all around to show them where they had escaped the grasp of the beasts who dared to challenge the rising of the sun.

Or, so the tale goes.

We can each make of this story what we desire, whether it be the cost of greed, the resistance against nature, or the dangers of the wickedness that pit us against one another. But I’ll let you search your soul for the answers you need in those respects.

What I would like to ask, what the basalt sea stacks left behind by the trolls, slowly eroding by the passage of time and tears of the sea, would compel me to ask is, what will be the story of your stone monument when your time for eternity comes, and who will tell it?

Let Your Banjo Twang

Without question, the banjo’s appeal can be quite limited. The sweet and simple twang of the metal strings plucked at an erratic and unconventional pace can immediately cause some listeners to cover their ears and scream. It doesn’t evoke the same mass appeal as an acoustic or electric guitar, but for those of us who hear the call of the wild in each pluck as it resonates out from the pot, our hearts begin to beat in tune.

Trail running has a similar appeal – although not all trail runners may appreciate the comparison.

If your eyes widen and your heart gets giddy when you see a mud-covered and rock-strewn trail, you are in the minority of runners. We don’t fit the pattern of the conventional. It is not normal in the modern era to look at a mountain and say, “I wonder how fast I could get up there and check out that view”. At least, not yet.

We’re all taking part in a burgeoning part of running culture. More and more, runners are finding the tight-knit communities of trail running appealing, and the mud-covered faces smiling from ear to ear welcoming. And even though we may look like the backcountry hillbillies of the mid-19th century when they see us sitting on the side of a trailhead, when they realize how much fun we’ve had they start creeping over to ask questions.

Between beers, or pop tarts, we’ll regale them with the story of why our legs are covered in bruises and blood – why are toenails look like they’re still painted black from an awkward goth phase in high school – and how we only slightly care about what time we finished in.

Some will listen with a growing look of disgust, their faces contorting and shaking, desperate to rid their minds of the images we so joyfully begin to embellish (just a little). Others’ eyes will pop, their minds picturing them tagging along on the next loop and chasing the breeze through the trees.

Our numbers are growing, but the reason is staying the same. There is a multitude of people out there who hear the call of the trails and their heart skips to the beat. Their nerves become plucked with the excitement of the unknown, or the revival of a youthful passion. With no guarantee what your rhythm or pace will be on a run as you struggle up and down a mountainside; embracing the utterly unconcerned nature of… well, nature, as it provides a rough and rugged route that doesn’t apply to a gentle stride, they fall in line and add to our melody. It takes an acceptance of the unexpected, an understanding of the ambivalence of the wild, to find the peace and tranquility on the trails we often seek to take home to our daily lives.

The value this offers is worth knowing, and we should always be welcoming to those who want to find it.

Covered in sweat and dirt, we should play our tunes through highs and lows, smiling as often as we can. And as our numbers continue to grow, as more people find their way into our midst, don’t be afraid to let your banjo twang in the wilderness. There are those out there who need to hear it. As for the others, well, they can decide what’s best for them when they hear our tune blaring through the trees and our mud-covered faces come charging toward them shouting “Sooooie!”

Zero Sum

I feel lazy. Every day, at some point, I feel like I have been lazy and not accomplished enough. It’s a frustrating but productive feeling.

It forces me to constantly push myself toward new projects and ideas in my head, but rarely affords me the time to enjoy any success or elation that may come from completing them. It can suck sometimes. But I’m not talking about this because I feel like it makes me special. I’m mentioning it because I think the majority of people have this tendency.

Our time in existence on this planet is a zero-sum game. It is finite. And for future generations to be able to inhabit this world we have to concede our space and accept the consequence of life. In realizing this, a person (let’s say me), can take this notion to a morbid fascination and work out how many days they potentially have left to live with simple math. Subtract your age from the average number of years you’re expected to live, then multiply by 365.

For example 75.3 – 37.5 = 37.8: now multiply 37.8 x 365 to get 13,797, the average amount of days I have left to live.

Again, this calculation is a morbid exercise in approximation given the unexpected nature of existence. There are also no guidelines offered by the magical number at the end to inform us how to spend our remainder of days. Should we charge ahead, attempting to accomplish every whim that grinds our minds to a halt until we address it? Should we just say ‘fuck it’ and let life be, relaxing every day while living the tan life in the sun? To each their specific answer, and I’ll be honest here, I don’t know mine.

But as my therapist loves to hear me say, let’s ignore what’s wrong with me for a moment and discuss how this plays out in our running community.

Our limited amount of time, our singular presence in a specific location, and our inability to see the future beyond mere assumptions dampen each finish line a little. With every major accomplishment, from your first 5k to your first 50k, the lazy thought worms start creeping in and asking you, “Yeah, but what’s next?” (Or sometimes me… at our finish lines… I’ll work on this)

The constant push toward goals can become toxic if it’s not balanced by a healthy understanding that not every day needs to be a step forward. Not every weekend needs to be a race weekend. And not every race needs to be the next step up. If future plans are not allotting you the time to sit back and relax and enjoy the life that’s around you, you should question its purpose.

I will never claim to have the answer to this dilemma. Each person has such intricacies built into their daily lives that there can be no all-encompassing answer, and I would caution you to be highly skeptical of anyone who claims there is. All that I have found to help me is a singular thought: If I’m given the chance to sit back and think on my life, knowing my endpoint is coming shortly, will I truly regret not chasing down that finish line, or idea?

Sometimes the answer is clear. I can see a story forming in my head of the day’s events, the struggles, the ups and downs, the friends made or old ones helped, and the moments of solitude that bring a small wisp of clarity to life before the wind blows it out of reach again. If I can feel that story, then I will give it my all because there’s something in that experience worth value to me, and potentially others, in life. There’s something in that effort worth remembering, worth giving up the time that will not be given back for.

Time is a precious commodity that we cannot create or handout with any certainty. Our existence is finite. And with that comes the beauty of the murals we each paint before we’ve used up all of our allotted materials. Before you commit yourself to that next race or the next big idea, just ask yourself if it will be time well spent; time worth remembering.

Pirate up, buttercup.

I’ve never gotten to be a pirate. Always wanted to be, but some desires are outdated by centuries and outweighed by the reality of responsibility that life requires. Still though, I miss the care-free times I spent charging through the makeshift forts erected by my friends and me when we were kids, pretending the sticks in our hands were cutlasses.

These epic assaults on port cities, forts, and massive galleons loaded with pieces of eight were as close as life would bring me to the sensation of being a pirate. And although the bounty we brought home after our adventures were nothing more than scrapes, bruises, and pretend money, we felt rich and mighty: gods of the sea (woods) unable to be defeated by our enemies (trees).

This feeling of elation and jubilee disappears quickly as age weakens imagination. The trees lose their curves that form the body of the ship. Fallen logs no longer resemble canons aimed and ready to fire on intruders. Friends fall away into other desires and passions revolving more around social status than irreverent fun.

Through time, the mud-soaked boots and ripped clothes of youth become replaced by a sought-after polished veneer. Reality strikes harder and faster than a buccaneer bent on revenge and rampage, and we lose touch with that fantastical whimsy that turned a grouping of trees into a destination beyond the maps edge where monsters be. I stopped wanting to be a pirate. Frankly, the more you learn about their reality versus the romantic perception, it can quickly turn you off. I still like to read about them though, but I would never want to commandeer a vessel and take aim at another in hopes of enriching myself.

That love of running carelessly through the woods with friends, however, was an attainable link to a happier time in youth I found readily available a few years back.There’s a lot that we can think of that goes into running these days if we get swept up into the industry of it – the adulthood aspect of running. But take a moment before you gear up for your next run and ask yourself, ‘What do I need?’.

Don’t worry. I’m not about to advocate for throwing away all available technological enhancements. Some of them can be very helpful in keeping us safe and healthy as we pursue our finish lines. I appreciate the minimalist style, but it’s not for me on most outings. What can get lost in these purchases and upgrades is more important to running, though.

If taken at face value, a trail race is nothing more than a group of people mindlessly following flagging on a trail at the same time on the same day in the same place. It holds little sway of appeal beyond a single personal goal. And when we let this solitude, this singular focus, become the primary mover while running we forget to have fun. As a kid, I ran through the mud with reckless abandon to conquer my enemy and attain glory to last through eternity. None of it was real, but damn was it fun.

The accomplishments we seek at the finish line of a race are real. For many of us, they are long-sought-after goals that took months of prep and steady progress. But, are you having fun? Are you smiling as you run through the mud and the creeks? Are you charging toward that finish line like it’s the fort standing in your way of the rich bounty that will bring your name glory?

If you do take a moment to ask yourself what you need on your next run, I truly hope the first thing you think of is your sense of adventure. It isn’t easy to run with the reckless abandon we had when growing up. Too much is on the line, and too much is already faulty within our bodies as they’ve begun the slow process of breaking down with time. But the heart of running doesn’t need us to physically act like a kid. It just need us to allow the mentality to sink in. We don’t run together on race day because it’s the adult thing to do. We gear up and call our buddies to make sure they’re still coming so we can hang out and have fun as we used to for a few hours when we were kids.

If you do take a moment to ask yourself what you need on your next run, I truly hope the first thing you think of is your sense of adventure. It isn’t easy to run with the reckless abandon we had when growing up. Too much is on the line, and too much is already faulty within our bodies as they’ve begun the slow process of breaking down with time. But the heart of running doesn’t need us to physically act like a kid. It just need us to allow the mentality to sink in. We don’t run together on race day because it’s the adult thing to do. We gear up and call our buddies to make sure they’re still coming so we can hang out and have fun as we used to for a few hours when we were kids.

So, let your smile shine bright as you yelp and holler your way down the hill. Cheer on those mighty buccaneers charging forward at your side. Run through the mud. Storm the fort. Let out that inner pirate and raise the black flag in the face of dispirited running. You are the arbiter of your imagination – due it the justice the kid in you deserves on your next run.

What to Expect

So, you’ve signed up for your first ultra. It’s good to be a little crazy and daft and I hope you indulge in that nature from time to time in other aspects of your life. But for now, let’s focus on the ridiculous decision to decide to run 30+ miles for fun.

If you’re about to toe the start line of an ultra, I’m going to dispense with the basic nature of running advice and trust that you haven’t just picked up an old pair of sneakers and randomly signed up for something that would destroy your knees without the proper time and effort put in. So, screw all the shop talk, and let’s dive into the emotional aspects that will primarily dominate your day.

First up, Adrenaline:

A mixture of fear, excitement, and unbridled energy, adrenaline will be ever-present in your veins the morning of the race from when you wake up and stay with you through the first couple of miles. The anticipation to run this race has been building since the first moment you happened to come across it in your feed or scrolling through a registration site, and now it’s finally here. All the miles you put in to train, all the miles you forgot to put in to make sure you were fully trained, and all the doubt and desires about crossing the finish line that has had no place to go except for that tiny corner in your mind, are now pouring out all at once. It is truly exhilarating, and you should enjoy it as much as possible.

Life doesn’t always offer you moments like this in the repetitive nature of our daily goings-on. The mundane aspect of routine limits your emotional output as a byproduct of maintaining a peaceful state, with limited exertion of bodily resources. But an ultra isn’t routine, and your mind will quickly start firing off the warning shots to your whole system about the chaotic decision you just made when pick up your bib, pin it on, and stand behind the arch. 

Enjoy the rush, but do not let it take control! If you do not have a plan to tame the rush, it will overtake whatever plan you have written down for your race and will chuck it out and laugh as all the runners behind you stomp on it while it begs for mercy. Adrenaline doesn’t care about mile 15, or 22, or 31. It cares about right now, and only now, and doing everything now. If you go out hot, above the pace that you set, and start looking at your watch thinking you’re going to do great because you’re shattering your goals within the first few miles, remember that nonsense when you’re dragging your legs behind you a few hours later.

Adrenaline wears away and will not carry you through a race. A solid plan with a determined mindset to grit and grin will. Enjoy the unease, the nervous excitement, and the jittery nature that it brings on race day morning. But, do not let it control your race.

Second in line, The Mid-Run High:

There’s a beautiful moment you’ll reach within a long run where your stride becomes natural, your body responds to every rut and groove with ease, letting you focus on the joy of the moment instead of focusing solely on not dying by stepping on an unseen rock. Your energy levels have eased as the adrenaline is fully out of your system and you can maintain the pace that you felt so comfortable with, in your training.

It’s hard to say how long this moment will last for you as it can depend entirely on the training you were able to put in before the race, and the mental preparations you’ve taken to withstand what’s coming next… but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The key thing to remember at this point is that you are not out of the clear but have just landed your stride and this is where the work of finishing your ultra will begin. Don’t take your mind off of the need to hydrate and replenish your energy. Whatever gels/snacks you’ve packed and have mapped out to keep you going, stick to it. If you think you’re doing great, you are. But you still have several miles to go and any lack of preparation for the miles to come in this moment of ease will come back to haunt you. A dip in hydration could leave your stomach reeling as your body begins to wonder where all the water it needs is, and if you don’t fuel properly and hope you can make it up later, your stomach might give you the finger and start rejecting anything you put in it.

This isn’t meant to scare you. You’ve trained for this and you’ve planned for this. Stick to your training, and stick to your plan. Even when things feel light and easy, you’re running farther than your body understands and it will get cranky in a heartbeat if not taken care of properly.

Three is not the charm, The Pitfall:

You are going to hate yourself. At some point, after several miles, the aches and pains will start to creep up your body and slither their way into your thoughts. It’s ok. It’s going to happen and you’re going to have to deal with it. But deal with it, you can.

Running this far is not normal for your body at this point. That doesn’t mean it’s dangerous with the proper training, but your mind is going to respond to the abnormal feel of constant movement and try to get you to stop. In so doing, you may feel the ever-present thought, “What the hell are you even doing this for, anyway?!” as it blares through the boundaries of your consciousness for a few miles.

When this happens, don’t be afraid of it, and don’t pretend that it’s not there. If you’ve been digging around the ultra and long-distance community, then you’ve probably heard of the terms ‘pain cave’ and ‘struggle bus’. This is that moment, and you are about to understand why these names are so accurate. Your body has felt the pressure of the run before you and is realizing you aren’t done, and may even have another 10+ miles to go. It’s going to rebel and you are going to have to tame the fire of doubt that it ignites on the fly or it will send you spiraling toward a DNF. Subtle aches in your knees or a slight tinge in the ankle will seem like horrific injuries that you’ll never recover from. A stumble over a rock or root will make you want to rip off your hydration pack and throw it at the squirrel you’re convinced has been following you just to laugh at your misfortune. But remember, you’re in the woods, and all the squirrels look the same. Leave it alone. They hunt in packs and will follow you…

I’m not going to lie and tell you this part goes away with the more ultras you run. It doesn’t. Once you conquer the 50k, you’ll start eyeing the next distance up, and up, and up. But, you do learn to understand the signs of it as it comes on, and you can find ways to lessen its control over your thoughts. For me, I knock my pace back and enjoy a very indulgent snack at an aid station, or one I’ve packed for myself. At this moment, you need to remember the joy of the challenge and the peace you can find within yourself. Most likely, you signed up to run this race to have fun and enjoy the memories of conquering the struggle. Here’s your moment. This is the section that your race will hinge upon as you have to decide how to deal with the doubts and disruptions your mind volleys at you until you break through the struggle and see the other side. Which, if you keep going, you will.

Four for the win, Walk it In:

Whether this is your first, tenth, or twentieth finish, it’s still one hell of an accomplishment and you should enjoy crossing under that arch as much as you can. If your body tells you to sprint and burn off the last remnants of fuel, then go for it and let the flames fly behind you. However, if you see that finish line and a Jimmy Buffet song starts playing in your head and you just want to sit down for a minute before crossing to relish and savor the memory, go for it! This is your race and this is your memory. Unless you are in the combat zone of vying for a podium spot, whether you finish in the mid-twenties or mid-thirties isn’t going to affect anything but your time. And, if I can be honest, I stopped caring about what the time clock said when I crossed a long time ago.

It is great to set goals and to strive to topple them, but they also have the unwanted ability to cast a shadow over your accomplishments if they happen to not meet every piece of said goal. And, let’s be honest, you’ve probably got three to four goals set for the day, culminating in the “oh, please gods of the wood, just let me cross the finish line so I can die in peace”.

The problem with these goals is that they can, at times, force you to be short-sighted. This race didn’t begin with the start clock. It began when you first saw it and a tiny daydream popped into your thoughts, a distant image of yourself crossing the finish line with a smile, content, and feeling accomplished. From that moment up until you cross the finish line is the extent of time that a race covers. Do not, under any circumstances, discount all of that time and effort you put in (or meant to) by feeling defeated by a finish if it did not meet a goal. No ultra is easy, no long-distance run is easy, and no time spent daring to accomplish something most people consider madness should be seen as wasted.

So, if the pressure of the race and the distant memories of goals lost to time start to weigh on you as you near the finish line, never be afraid to just say ‘fuck it, I earned this,’ and walk it in.

In Conclusion:

You rock. Now go be a badass and toe the line.

Cheers from the Finish Line

Too Afraid to Fail

Fear is a wicked little beast living inside our minds. It’s useful and certainly has helped keep us alive over the few hundred thousand years our species has been present on Earth, but that doesn’t mean fear’s not a complete asshole sometimes.

I went to high school in the Charlotte area for my junior and senior year, but I doubt there is a single person that would remember me. This isn’t because I’ve changed drastically or somehow morphed into another being, but because I was so afraid of everyone and everything, I did my damnedest to be completely unseen. Fear gripped my everyday existence. Fear kept me from walking into a lunchroom, huddled in a dark corner outside the school with a book and a sandwich. Fear kept me from even wanting to have friends. I was lonely and afraid, but I insisted to myself that this was how I had control.

If I was successful in defining my life in such a small bubble, one in which I could turn around in place and see everything I needed to maintain, there would be no fear of failure; no fear of reaching out to only be brushed aside and scorned. Fear is paralyzing, yet failure somehow seemed worse.

I may have considered myself to be the kid no one wanted or the friend no one needed; that glitch in the code that managed to squeak past the beta testers, but I wasn’t a failure. If I tried at something I knew I could accomplish, I could easily succeed. By taking no risk I gained little but maintained a peace of mind not allotted by the fear I let grip my other ambitions.

Putting angsty teenage to twenty-something me aside, there is no key turning point to this story. No epiphany suddenly lent me the courage to try and accomplish something beyond the initial boundaries I had set. What I had to go through, and what I imagine anyone sharing similarly unfond memories of youth has gone through, is the slow and agonizing crawl toward an outward expression of the inner ambition we kept clamped down. The broken glass and toxic waste of emotional scars littered across my mind were desperate to keep me in place, safe in my minuscule bubble.

The pain of toxic memories is inevitable if never dealt with properly. I never learned how to deal with my issues at school – I assume most everyone else didn’t either – and I had to find a way to address my desire to risk nothing if I wanted to live a life worth waking up for. It didn’t seem like a noble task at first, certainly not one I should overexert myself on until I started rephrasing the problem. Instead of convincing myself that I was merely risking nothing, I started to remind myself that I was managing to accomplish nothing.

Religiosity aside, there is a definitive end to this expression of life. The atomic structures that build-up, coalesce, and form the human being we hazily glare at in the morning is what we know for certain. Staring at the bleak representation of my life I had let fear produce, I began to wonder what it would be like to fail. Not just a mild failure, but a magnificent and utter catastrophe of failure, the kind on a scale that would make a person instantly recognizable to those around them.

It’s a petrifying thought, but a helpful one. How bad is the embarrassment in comparison to the fear that resided in its place? Would my life be any different than the current output I resigned myself to? An in 100 years, would anybody even care that I screwed up?

With questions like that in mind, I decided to step back into running, an overweight mid-twenties and exceedingly awkward person afraid to wave at the other runners passing by on the sidewalk. (Side note – I have yet to overcame that fear, in case any of you wonder why I act so awkwardly).

From my first mile running to my latest attempt at 100 miles, I have never lost the fear of failure. I don’t want to fail. I don’t know anyone who reasonably wants to fail. And the fear that gripped me as a kid still finds its way into all of my decisions as an “adult” – there is some dispute as to whether or not I qualify.

The only difference now is that I took the long and painful path through my mind to understand what hurt and fear are, and to understand what failure is. I’ve DNF’d the last 4 attempts I’ve made at hitting my 100 mile goal. I have failed at each attempt, but that does not make me a failure.

Burning that phrase into my mind like a lightning rod against the fear as it strikes through my nerves has kept me in continual pursuit of dreams. This is the one life that I am certain we have. This is the one chance to represent the accumulation of matter designated as ‘us’.

I’ve been fortunate that a few of the small risks I’ve taken have paid off with large dividends. A weird little redhead I asked out nearly twenty years ago still manages to find a way to love me through the constant storm of my never-ceasing thoughts. A brother I had little in common with, but who always had my back found a way to fall in love with his version of running to add support and passion to what became our shared dream. These measures of support can not be overlooked, but they do not change the inner workings of the mind. That’s up to us to continuously work on, to continuously ask the right questions, and force ourselves to answer.     

I am afraid. I am awkward. I am continuing to fight the urges to curl up in a corner and be completely unnoticed. I am willing to try and achieve things so difficult, that I may continuously fail.

I am alive.